Ramadan got off to a bloody start on 27 October when a series of suicide bombings in Baghdad left more than 30 people dead. The incidents were only the most lethal in a spate of attacks in late October that overshadowed the billions of dollars in loans and grants pledged at a donors’ conference in Madrid.

Four powerful car bombs were detonated in the capital in what appeared to be co-ordinated attacks. Three police stations were targeted but the local headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) sustained the worst damage. Two employees were killed. The organisation reacted by dramatically scaling down its presence in Baghdad, but heeded pleas by US Secretary of State Colin Powell not to withdraw entirely. Two days later, the UN announced that all its staff would be pulled out of the city while the security situation was reassessed.

US officials were swift to blame foreign infiltrators for the bombings, citing the operation’s sophistication and complete disregard for civilian life. A man arrested on suspicion of planning a fifth attack was found to be carrying a Syrian passport. The White House characteristically blamed Tehran and Damascus, calling on the two governments to monitor their borders and prevent nationals entering Iraq to fight the coalition. However, coalition commanders charged with guarding the border doubt that foreign insurgents are entering in large numbers. ‘If somebody is saying the Ho Chi Minh Trail runs through my area of operations, I’m going to tell them they’re wrong,’ said Joseph Buche, a commander in the 101st Airborne Division, on 28 October.

President Bush acknowledged the security problems facing coalition forces in a rare press conference on 28 October. Sounding an unusually sombre note, Bush reaffirmed his contention that Iraq had become the frontline in the fight against Islamist terrorism. ‘I can’t put it any more plainly – Iraq is a dangerous place,’ he told reporters. ‘Iraq is a front in the war on terror and we will win this particular battle.’

The president defended himself against accusations of premature triumphalism when he essentially declared victory on 1 May. That the real challenge was not toppling Saddam Hussein but securing his former realm was brought home by a grim milestone on the day of Bush’s speech: the death of two soldiers in an attack north of Baghdad brought the total number of US troops killed since the May declaration to 116, more than during the invasion itself. US deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz had a particularly stark demonstration of Iraq’s dangers during a recent visit. He escaped unhurt when rockets were fired at his Baghdad hotel on 26 October.

While the number of coalition troops killed in such attacks hits the headlines, the vast majority of the victims are Iraqi civilians. In the bombing of the ICRC building alone, 10 bystanders died. Locals who work with the post-war authorities are often deliberate targets. The deputy major of Baghdad was assassinated on 26 October. Two days later, four Iraqis died when a police station in the restive city of Falluja came under attack. The incidents coincided with the release of a report by a US-based research group which estimated that some 4,500 Iraqi civilians were killed during the coalition invasion.

Washington hopes that some of the resistance coming from sympathisers of the former regime will wane as reconstruction progresses. A major boost for rebuilding efforts was provided by the Madrid donors’ conference on 23-24 October. Governments and international bodies pledged a total of $33,000 million in grants, concessionary loans, export credits and other forms of assistance. The sum falls well short of the $56,000 million World Bank/UN estimate of Iraq’s needs over the next five years, and $20,000 million will come from the US. Grants were heavily outweighed by loans. Neither France, Germany nor Russia promised funds. However, the figure was higher than many expected and both US and Iraqi officials welcomed the outcome.